Dive into the Wonderful World of Craft Oysters with Local Author Dana Deskiewicz | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Dive into the Wonderful World of Craft Oysters with Local Author Dana Deskiewicz 

Craft oysters

Photo by Dana Deskiewicz

Craft oysters

Dana Deskiewicz is an oyster encyclopedia, as I learned over a two-hour dinner at Saint James Seafood. His Appreciating Oysters: An Eater's Guide to Craft Oysters from Tide to Table, published by The Countryman Press (a division of W.W. Norton & Company) last spring, is the first book on craft oysters. Yes, that's a thing.

Just as craft beer aficionados geek out over hops and fermentation, Deskiewicz is animated about oyster varieties and cultivation methods. His book celebrates and documents craft oysters and the farmers who raise them, instilling a deeper appreciation for briny bivalves in oyster virgins and experienced eaters alike. It also includes a bucket-list section of eighty-five different varieties, along with tips on how to eat them. It's the next best thing to dining with Deskiewicz himself.

A craft oyster is one that is produced by a small, independent farmer who has a passion for raising unique, beautiful, and flavorful oysters. So, how can you be sure you're eating one? Most oysters are farmed, but not all farmed oysters are craft. If a menu includes the name or provenance, that's a good sign. Among the seven listed at Saint James, Deskiewicz immediately recognizes Sweet Jesus and Fire Lake, and he counts three varieties from North Carolina. Even if a menu just lists "oysters," if they're craft, the wait staff should be able to tell you their provenance or how they're raised.

"It's a bit like the Wild West at the moment for craft oysters. There is no true certification for craft versus regular farming," Deskiewicz explains. "In a way, it's like the organic movement in the early days."

Farmers start with oyster "seed," typically sourced from a common supplier. Even so, not all oysters taste alike. It's partly because of merroir, a term derived from terroir to describe how the marine environment—water type, nutrients, salinity, climate, and ocean conditions—affect an oyster's flavor, texture, and appearance. But it's also due to crafting—the expertise, care, and time the farmer puts into raising the oyster. By understanding merroir, farmers can experiment with location and farming methods to craft oysters with a specific flavor profile, texture, and appearance. As a result, even craft oysters living within a hundred-yard radius can vary.

"It's almost like a time machine, because oysters come out of a certain time and place, and you get that essence. And it kind of changes by the minute," Deskiewicz says. "No other food really does that."

Deskiewicz is a self-professed "foodie and drinkie," but it's clear that oysters hold a certain sway over him. It really began in 2009, when he took a six-month road trip to eat and drink his way cross-country. Deskiewicz ordered oysters everywhere and noticed how they varied by region: plump Canadian oysters, salty East Coast oysters, and sweet, melon-y West Coast oysters.

Back in New York City, where he worked as a graphic designer, Deskiewicz frequented Grand Central Oyster Bar, where he marveled at the forty-plus varieties and the shuckers' speed; Maison Premiere, where the night might turn into a two-hundred-oyster feast that elicited a bottle of champagne on the house; and Upstate Craft Beer & Oyster Bar, where he saw oysters delivered and got to taste them with the owner before they hit the menu.

"That sprung an idea," Deskiewicz says. "There was no app that tells you what this oyster is, the flavor profile, a description." In 2012, he created Oystour to fill that niche. A searchable and beautifully designed app, it includes photos, descriptions, and facts on two hundred and fifty oysters.

Given the content Deskiewicz had created for the app, his passion for craft oysters, and his eye for design, his wife, Jessica, a literary agent, steadily encouraged him to publish a book. By 2016, when they were living in Durham for his job at Research Triangle Park, he gave in. In 2018, they celebrated the book's release over dinner at Saint James, when Deskiewicz learned that the staff uses Oystour as a reference.

Which reminds us—there's an order of gleaming oysters beckoning.

Deskiewicz deems the presentation pristine: The shells are intact, the meat isn't punctured, there's no shell debris, and there's plenty of liquor, the oyster's naturally occurring, briny liquid. (To my horror, Deskiewicz reveals he's seen places dump out the liquor.) There's a lineup of condiments, but Deskiewicz recommends first trying the oyster naked to get a sense of the flavor, and then dress the next one if needed—a dash of Tabasco to cut richness, a squeeze of lemon to accentuate brightness.

First up are South Lakes from Canada. Deskiewicz sniffs, registering a whisper of brine, then sips the liquor, whose candylike sweetness elicits a surprised "Oh!" The taste can either hint at what's to come or be completely misleading, a surprise he relishes.

He tips it back and after a few chews (yes, you're supposed to chew), notes that it started sweet before revealing a mild richness that gives way to a creamy finish.

Pause here. Don't even think about reaching for your drink; one sip washes away the finish and robs you of the full experience.

Next up are North Carolina Devil Shoals. As Deskiewicz chews, his eyes widen in surprise, and his shoulders sink with pleasure. To me, it tastes the way catching a wave feels. There's a surge of brine that then undulates between creaminess and saltiness, before a mineral, vegetal finish laps up, part slate, part algae.

Another highlight is the N.C. Core Sounder. Deskiewicz is a fan of the farmers, who recycle shells to aid ocean conservation efforts. These are tumbled oysters, so there's a pool of luscious liquor, and we savor the eye-popping brine.

"Not a lot of people know North Carolina has a wide range of oysters; the boom is just starting here," Deskiewicz says. "Established oyster farmers have been producing delicious oysters for awhile. But as consumers gain an appreciation for craft oysters, new farms are being established to satisfy demand and discerning palates. It's an exciting time for North Carolina's oyster scene with the best yet to come."


How to Make craft oysters
Illustrations by Christopher Williams

1. Start with oyster seed, or baby oysters beginning to form shells.

2. Farmers place the seed in an upweller system—a continual supply of nutrient-rich, flowing water—to grow. "The farms place the seed into nurseries—fine mesh bags, netted boxes, or containers—so that water flows over the seed, which allows the oysters to filter all those yummy nutrients. They grow, on average, about twice their size every day." –Dana Deskiewicz

3. Once the oysters grow large enough, they're put into bigger containers until they can be placed into open water.

4. The farmers tend to the oysters by checking and moving cages, tumbling, and other methods until they reach market size, which takes eighteen to twenty-four months on average."Tumbling forces the shell to grow deeper and smoother, creating those wonderful cup shapes. It also helps strengthen the adductor muscle, which keeps the shell closed and creates firmer meats. Think of it as CrossFit for an oyster. The more intense the workout, the leaner, firmer, and stronger they get."

5. Once oysters reach market size, they're harvested and prepped for delivery."Farmers use calipers, sized metal rings, or slots on trays or tables to measure the oysters. After harvest, oysters are cleaned via a spray wash or quick scrub-a-dub. Packaging varies, but the most common is a mesh bag with a tag providing key information including farm, oyster type, location, and most importantly, harvest date."

6. The oysters are shucked at the restaurant and served on the half shell.

7. Restaurants recycle shells by sending them back into the water. This aids oyster-recovery and water-conservation efforts.


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